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Operator Error

Spiritual Training Cycle: Surrender (wk. 12/13)

When I began my coaching career in 2009, I expected a lot from my athletes, especially when it came to progress. I loved to see people make progress and I loved to celebrate their success. And while I still do, I don’t place the same weight on it I once did, because I learned something valuable along the way from an athlete named Marcus. When Marcus first joined the gym, he was new to CrossFit but not new to fitness. He was on what I call a comeback. It wasn’t long before he started responding to our coaching cues, improving his points of performance, and generating a wave of consistency. Every time Marcus walked in the gym, I thought to myself, “This guy is really getting it.” And then one day, Marcus hit a wall. His performance started to diminish, his strength plateaued, and his coach (me) was flabbergasted. What could it be? I started through the rolodex of issues in my mind, all of which centered on him. Was he losing his commitment? Was he staying up too late bingeing shows or playing videogames? In short, I blamed it on him. A few days later I overheard two athletes talking about Marcus, and how he had recently lost his job. They knew it was taking a toll on him and they hoped he would find another job soon. It was then I realized I had it all wrong. This was a case of operator error.

When it comes to people, why do we get it wrong? No doubt you’ve been sure about someone’s motives, only to find out it was never really that at all. When psychologists studied the way we evaluate others, they discovered what I experienced with Marcus. It’s called fundamental attribution error (a.k.a. operator error). Harvard Business School defines it this way:

The fundamental attribution error refers to an individual's tendency to attribute another's actions to their character or personality, while attributing their behavior to external situational factors outside of their control. In other words, you tend to cut yourself a break while holding others 100 percent accountable for their actions.

Which is exactly what I did with Marcus. Think about it. Have you ever missed a workout? Have you ever had a fitness slump? Of course you have. When that happens, are you more apt to blame your character or your circumstances? When you walk back in the gym, do you tell the coach you’re worthless or that you’ve been busy? Exactly. But when it comes to others, we don’t cut them the same slack. I was ready to drag Marcus to the woodshed and let him know that his character was sabotaging his fitness. Instead, turns out the guy lost his job and was trying to figure out his next move. His situation was the culprit, not his integrity.

We can face a similar struggle in our journey to forgive others. Forgiveness is choosing how to live with the painful consequences of another’s action. Forgiveness is not an emotion, it’s an action. When we choose to forgive, we give others what God gave us. But before I forgive, I often find myself trying to figure out why someone hurt me to begin with. Without a doubt, my first thought is character. It’s because of who they are that they did what they did. There’s that good old operator error again. The truth is we don’t know why people do the things they do. And most of the time, we’ll never know. But the more convinced of the motive we are, the less likely we are to forgive. Remember, forgiveness doesn’t heal the other person – it heals you.

But choosing to forgive may require some adjustments in your life. You may need to put up some new boundaries, to keep someone from hurting you again. You may need to have a heartfelt conversation and muster up the courage to tell them how what they did made you feel. You may also need to adjust to the idea that forgiving is not forgetting. When you forgive, you forgive the person, not the offense. The memory of what happened may fade over time, but it will always linger somewhere. Set yourself free from the burden of grudges. Give the gift of forgiveness and avoid operator error.

Questions for Reflection:

Do you find you attribute someone’s actions to their personality or character more than their circumstances?

Does our perspective of why people hurt us impact our ability to forgive them?

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